Not a glass-half-full version of The Threepenny Opera, Half a Sixpence brings good old-fashioned pleasures, two dazzlingly show-stopping numbers, gorgeous designs, nifty millinery, a musical first for us: a number set in a woodworking class and a gravity-defying new musical star to town. And we haven’t even got to the banjos and spoon-playing. Yet.
The original production was way back in 1963 and it’s not been seen in the West End since. Clearly there was a reason. Now its been revised restructured and tickled into shape at Chichester.
Based on H.G. Wells‘s Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul, David Heneker‘s songs from the original version are augmented with new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. If you must dish up a cosily hoary tale of social betterment, snobbery, coincidence, sudden changes in fortune and a love triangle between different social classes, then who you gonna call other than Julian (Downton and practically every musical on its way to the West End) Fellowes to work on a new book?
We should probably skip over Act 1, whilst doggedly charming it doesn’t really crank up until just before the interval. Lord Fellowes’ “jokes” come with a generous dusting of cobwebs: you may wonder if he knocked them out while waiting for his breakfast kedgeree to be served. Though we did laugh out loud at one banjo-related gag, probably due to the timing of its delivery and our rather lewd dispositions.
Folkestone drapery assistant, Arthur (Arthur Sixpence – we geddit) Kipps (Charlie Stemp) inherits a not inconsiderable fortune and drifts away from his childhood sweetheart Ann (Devon-Elise Johnson), into a middle-class milieu. But will Helen Walsingham (Emma Williams) daughter of a snob (Vivien Parry) and sister to a decidedly dodgy brother (Gerard Carey) desperate for money, provide the happiness he seeks? No prizes for guessing how it ends.
Prizes, however, for Rachel Kavanaugh’s flowing production which is aided (for once) by excellent sound design (take a bow Mick Potter), the pretty band stand-themed designs of Paul Brown which twirl on four concentric revolves. And the occasional fabulous costume – especially for Jane How(Dirty Den’s mistress in Eastenders)’s Lady Punnet – deserves mention too.
Prizes too for Ms Williams and Ian Bartholomew, back at the same theatre where they were recently saddled with appearing in Mrs Henderson Presents. The latter plays Chitterlow – actor, aspiring playwright and dodgy cyclist – and a has a proper chance to shine here. Not least because he survives a song that cheekily takes a pop at theatre critics.
The title song is dispensed with in the opening minutes before returning for a reprise. The two other well-known original numbers are “If The Rain’s Got to Fall” and the amusing, smartly choreographed (by Andrew Wright) Oom Pah Pah knees-up that is “Flash Bang Wallop”. The latter is sensibly moved to the end of the show leading nicely into the splendid muliple-banjo delight of the curtain call.
But it was one of the new numbers, “Pick Out a Simple Tune”, which provides the most memorable moments of the night. Set at a country house party, early in Act 2, it builds thrillingly from a few banjo plucks to a crescendo of ear-wormery and is enhanced by a very attractive colour palette of costumery, an organ, a hint of tap, a drinks trolley, multiple spoon-playing and a participatory chandelier. Ripping stuff.
Stemp brings to mind a young Michael Crawford with a hint of Lee Evans thrown in for good measure. His winningly energetic and charming performance is a thing of wonder with limbs that seem to have minds of their own. If he was instructed never to climb on the furniture as a child (not that long ago – he’s only 22 for heaven’s sake) he’s clearly forgotten as he leaves no prop un-leapt upon. How he ascended onto the bar in a pub scene is beyond us.
Olivier Award recognition is inevitable. Ovating seemed inevitable and justified. For once we were happy to stretch our legs and join in.
Staff come around holding “no mobiles/photography” signs before the show. How mad is that? A loud announcement would have made more sense. The people who needed to read these signs were too glued to the screens of their phones to notice.
Co-Producer Cameron Mackintosh‘s car was waiting outside the theatre as we departed into the night. Which prompted Phil’s companion for the evening, Brent, to recall the story about Alfred Hitchcock who had been interviewed at the then NFT. A tannoy announcement made by a nervous flunky announced his transportation home: “Mr Hitchcar, your cock is waiting”.